Tropic Rover, two masted 145-foot gaff rigged catamaran

One time largest sailing catamaran in the world was built in Fort Lauderdale from 1961 to 1962.

Tropic Rover Under Sail

Are the boat building glory days of Fort Lauderdale past? Talking to Bixby Hill reminisce makes you wonder what has happened. Bix invited me to his home across from LMC and told stories of building boats on the New River during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The east and west banks downriver from I-95 have a rich tradition and colorful history of large yacht construction that makes you question if the mega yachts that populate our city today are really that advanced. In the 1950’s, Bix worked at Dooley’s Yacht Basin, what is now the east yard of Lauderdale Marine Center. There they built 140-foot minesweepers and exported them to the Netherlands to clear WWII mines from the North Sea. Equally busy yard hands on the north side built famous yachts such as the Prospector and Starlite and provided dockage for others such as the 115-foot motor yacht, Arethusa.

This was where, Bixby Hill says, they built the Tropic Rover from 1961 to 1962. She was a 145-foot gaff rigged schooner and the largest sailing catamaran in the world ever built to that point. For some perspective, that is 31-feet longer than the 114-foot trimaran winner of the 33rd America’s cup by BMW Oracle. Sidney Hartshorne, a long time Shady Banks resident, designed and commissioned the project. They leased the woodland from Summerfield Boat Works on the north side of the river across from Dooley’s. They actually had to clear the trees and shrubbery. The clearing was just west of the sheds than once lined the north bank of the final stretch of the New River. Below are excerpts from my November 6, 2010 interview with Bix at his home in Starlite Landing:

Tropic Rover

RJ: When did you arrive in Fort Lauderdale?
BH: During WWII I was stationed at the Coast Guard base in Miami. Bahia Mar was originally a US Coast Guard base too. I traveled up and down the coast on patrol and came to know the area. In 1950, I owned four lots across from the Hortt School in Shady Banks. George Gill came along one day and said he needed those lots for his subdivision. He was building homes in the area and dredging the two canals that run north and south. So I traded my four lots for this property here with a nice new seawall. After the war, I worked as a foreman at Dooley’s building 116′ and 136′ minesweepers and exporting them to the Netherlands to clean mines left over from WWII in the North Sea. They had to be wood to avoid setting off the mines.

RJ: What was the area like back then?
BH: The original access road was from Davie Boulevard to Cypress Landing which is along the eastside where 15th Ave is separated by a median. That was where the Prospector was built for Jack Collison. Then the access road came on a diagonal through the middle of the room where we are right now to Starlite Landing and where Gil Sayward built the Starlite. Later they made 19th Ave which came in straight from Davie Boulevard which was convenient for me. Now they have blocked that off. All the houses you see now were built in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. If you look at my property here you see how quickly the shrubbery grows and what it looked like back them. You can see all the piles we have cut down recently.
After the minesweepers, I was working on Tropic Rover. Sid Hartshorne was a long time friend who also lived here in Starlite Landing. He like me was a boat builder from the northeast. Sid had this idea to build a 150-foot catamaran. I guess everyone thought it was crazy. Sid designed and organized the whole project. He leased the clearing across the river from Dooley’s. The company was called the Catamarans of Florida. We had an office in a trailer on the clearing. Sid convinced a bunch of investors from Nassau and from over here including the outboard maker Lee Johnson that it would be a good charter venture. It took us exactly 1 year to build the Tropic Rover from 1961 to 1962.

RJ: Was Tropic Rover glass or wood?
BH: She had Douglas fir frames double planked with plywood then glassed over with a fire retardant resin called Hectrin. It better be fire retardant with all that plywood! She was a dangerous fire hazard. She had a huge schooner rig with hollow box spars that we put in at Bahia Mar. Everything on her was massive. She was powered by twin cat diesels. Getting her down to Bahia Mar was quite an ordeal. I asked Sid, “Hey did you plan this out?” He went down and measured the railroad bridge, and it only had 40-foot horizontal clearance. Tropic Rover had 39-foot beam! We barely squeezed through there. I remember one of the tugs breaking a window.

Tropic Rover Being Launched

RJ: What happened to her?
BH: It was pretty successful I guess. They featured her in Life Magazine. Except that the Bahamians wouldn’t let the charter group settle in over there. They actually had to start out and pick up passengers at Port Everglades. The Bahamian government did not want any charter groups settling in over in Nassau. They ran out most of the chartering schooners and ships.
Tropic Rover ran four or five day charters sailing over to Nassau and around the Bahamas to places such as Green Turtle Cay. She had at least six double cabins in each hull so that would be twenty four passengers there. I went over for the inaugural run to Nassau, and then they hired an all Bahamian crew. The captain’s quarter was athwartships in the platform. There was in the main salon a bar complete with brass railing. Aft most was the galley.
They ran her very successfully for five years. Then in 1967 bad weather pushed her into sunken barges at the Nassau Harbor. She ran around on the jetties. I have a newspaper clipping. After a two hour rescue operation, she sunk. No one was lost. All of the 35 passengers and 15 crew members were saved.

Since the days of Tropic Rover and Dooley’s Yacht Basin, much has changed. After construction of the Tropic Rover in 1962, Summerfield Boat Works dredged the land and put up a seawall. The area became the live aboard nook at the yard behind the little old house that still stands. Currently the yard is vacant after a failed development project during the land craze of the 2000’s. The foreclosed property recently resold for $1.25 million on September 14, 2010 to Point Breeze Holdings LLC according to Broward County Property Records. On the south side, Lauderdale Marine Center no longer does new construction instead opting for refits and service.

Watching the mega yachts go by from Bix’s home in Starlite Landing is like looking into the future. And the funny thing is these yachts do not seem that impressive knowing the lineage of our area. The 2010 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show saw the introduction of the largest yacht ever built in the United States, Cakewalk, a 281-foot mega yacht built at the Derecktor Shipyard in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It seems like all of us in Fort Lauderdale, the yachting capital of the world, should once again build something like Tropic Rover.